PITTSFIELD -- Joseph "Uncle Joe" Failla has always been known around the neighborhood for his sense of humor and for giving his friends rides in his little MG.
So he didn’t think twice when his niece, Marie Failla Beron, said they were throwing a Fourth of July party at the family place on Longfellow Avenue.
He should have -- it was a surprise party for him on his 95th birthday, complete with a new batch of medals he earned in World War II that he had lost over the years.
Failla must have wondered why the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Department Honor Guard turned up. He may have been curious why City Councilman Paul Capitanio, Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi and Sheriff Tom Bowler were there, too.
But what the heck, it was a party for the nation and, coincidentally, his 95th birthday. He had a beer in his hand and good friends and family around him, so why question anything.
But if he had any suspicions, they were quickly confirmed when the speeches started. His niece went to the podium, told him the party was for him and started introducing speakers.
Bowler made a short speech wishing Failla happy birthday and recounting Failla’s military service and varied career. Bianchi read a city proclamation thanking Failla for his service to the community during his years in Pittsfield and to the nation during World War II.
Then came the real surprise. The last speaker was Richard Delmasto, a congressional aid to U.S. Rep. John Olver.
He was bearing gifts from afar.
In a small plastic case, Delmasto had brought with him from Washington, D.C. the replacement medals -- one of which Failla didn’t even know he was due.
There was a Purple Heart, a Good Conduct Medal, a European African Middle East Campaign Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, a World War II Victory Medal, an Honorable Service Lapel Button and a Combat Infantry Badge, which entitled Failla to receive a Bronze Star. He didn’t know about the Bronze Star.
For about 18 months Beron had been working to get the medals replaced for her uncle.
Beron said the effort started paying off when she contacted Olver.
"He said, ‘We’re going to get this done.’ And he did," Beron said. "I was overwhelmed."
Failla makes light of his adventures in the Army, but as Bowler pointed out, Failla served in Europe in the infantry. He was injured on May 12, 1944, during the Arno River Campaign in Italy. After six weeks in a hospital, he served out his hitch on the Isle of Corsicana.
After the presentation, Failla was smiling broadly, posing for photos and thanking everyone.
"This is the best," he said. "I’ve got a great family. Great friends."
Later, Failla told anyone in earshot that the Army wanted to give him more Purple Hearts after other injuries, which he declined. He didn’t know at the time that for each Purple Heart, he would have had his service time reduced.
"I coulda come home six months earlier, and I didn’t even know it," he said, laughing. "I just kept turning them down."
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